Cover

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Half Title, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Contents

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pp. vii-x

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Translator’s Preface

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pp. xi-xvi

This book came about when, during my ongoing research on Jewish soldiers in the armies of the Central Powers during the First World War, I became aware that approximately 1/4 of the Austro-Hungarian Army was captured and imprisoned all over Russia and Central Asia. ...

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Introduction: In Search of the Jewish People: Avigdor Hameiri’s War Literature

Avner Holtzman

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pp. 1-24

The outbreak of the First World War in summer 1914 met Modern Hebrew literature during an unprecedented period of flowering. Despite the passage of more than a century, we still refer to this as the “classical era.” A remarkable number of great prose writers and poets were active at that time, in different stages of their respective creative development. ...

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Part 1

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pp. 25-26

These impressions are a continuation of my first book The Great Madness. They reflect a true impression of my experiences in the plague barracks of the prisoner of war camps through which I wandered from 1916 through 1919. ...

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1. Captivity

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pp. 27-31

A rainy, filthy, muddy morning.
The rain started with the last Russian attack, two days ago. It soaked us to the skin, filled our rifle barrels with mud, and now, while the Russians are marching us prisoners off, that same rain continues pouring down in torrents. We knead the doughy mud with intolerably heavy legs, ...

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2. The Gypsy Peep Show

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pp. 32-37

Our first station is the town of Chortkov.1
I know the town well. About a year ago, our regiment withdrew behind it and remained there for a while.
The whole town took care of us then. Everyone—especially the Jews—was happy and generous. ...

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3. The Shoe Revolution

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pp. 38-41

The stupidity and malice of our officers’ requests are obscene. The Russians mock their shameful demands, which makes their initial bad impression even worse. Those who strut around are not professional staff officers. No, they are “citizen officers,” yesterday’s “educated” class: self-important liberal arts scholars, doctors, lawyers, teachers, office clerks, scriveners, ...

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4. For the Sake of One Scratch

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pp. 42-49

We’ve been trudging for several hours.
It’s a glorious spring day, such as I haven’t seen for many years. The fields are fragrant, the air vibrates with a chorus of birdsong. We pass village after village: people stand at the fences of their yards and look at us curiously. Groups of young girls point at us, giggling. ...

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5. The Survey

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pp. 50-55

Before we board the train, we’re each given a number. The Russian soldier announces, “Each of you will get a number: keep it and remember it!” I receive number fifty-eight.
“Mazal Tov, Mr. Fifty-eight,” says Margolis.
Why this number? No one knows. Thousands of prisoners have passed through this guard’s hands— ...

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6. Kipyatok

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pp. 56-61

We travel on, passing many stations, but not stopping at any. Where are we, where are we going, what are the names of these stations? No one has any idea.
Margolis is teaching me to read Russian. He is no member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, this yeshiva bokher, but he still knows more about the language than I do. ...

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7. Under the Clear Blue Sky

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pp. 62-71

We have been travelling for four days. Nothing has changed except that Margolis has been slapped in the face by a Russian “general.” At one of the stations, we are made to change trains (apparently the first was too good for us). We see a large regiment of prisoners from another train. A spry old Russian stands there, barking out orders to Russian ...

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8. Prisoner Redemption

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pp. 72-76

It bothers me that I don’t understand the local Jewish community. Are they really just Sholem Aleichem’s cunning Yids and Mendele’s stupid little kikes? Or are they a mixture of Chassidim and their enemies, the Mitnagdim, as described by Peretz, Steinberg, and Berdyczewski? One family has already sent me flowers! ...

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9. The Covenant of Lice

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pp. 77-81

Today I realize what I’m really worth.
Yesterday, I still felt like a human being. Care, love, a clean table, even flowers. But today a diminutive Russian officer roars at me.
“Number fifty-eight! Take your rucksack and come with me at once!”
“Where to?”
“Shut your trap!” He comes up to me, hand raised. ...

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10. In the Labyrinth

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pp. 82-87

The estate of Glushetzk, where we’ve been brought to work, is owned by some Russian prince or other, leased to an Englishman named MacDonald.1 It includes a packing house for hay. On one side is an endless forest, on the other a meadow: a blanket of grass that sprawls across the Dnieper, as far as the eye can see. ...

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11. The Big Plan

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pp. 88-95

Sprawling along the other side of the Dnieper, about four kilometers from Glushetzk, is a small village. During our Sunday walks, we pass by the river, between the village and the packing house. (The boat on which we first arrived took us into the lake next to Glushetzk, where they let us off.) I feel the urge to visit the village and see if any Jews live there. ...

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12. The Samovar

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pp. 96-101

In the village of Cholmetz, I meet two groups of Russian-Jewish villagers. Are they typical of those described in Jewish prose and poetry?1 This is the infamous Pale of Settlement, where Jews live in exile, under constant threat of pogroms and persecution—where bribery is necessary to survive. What are these Jews really like? ...

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13. The Song of the Universe

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pp. 102-106

Frieda, the elder Aronov daughter, is walking with me in the meadow on the banks of the Dnieper. She’s not so young anymore, but still full of grace and unusually intelligent. We talk of many things, and the entire saga of Jewish suffering in Tsarist Russia unfolds before me. The recent pogroms in Kishinev are only one example. ...

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14. Jews Don’t Respect the Laws of Nature

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pp. 107-115

This tale has nothing to do with the Aronov story. It is rather dedicated to the respected village teacher and sage Semyon Petrovich Galagon, a man who imparts wisdom to the younger Russian generation, both in his village and all over Russia.
Before we begin, we must first understand the relationship between the Russian and German peoples. It’s truly astonishing! ...

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15. The Dangerous Spy

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pp. 116-120

I am in deep trouble.
For the past few days, a rumor has spread through the village like a heavy cloud of silent despair. There’s a very dangerous German spy in their midst, in mysterious contact with the Germans. After all, Jews don’t obey the laws of nature, do they? ...

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16. The Price of My Ear

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pp. 121-125

A cold, driving rain falls.
We’ve been walking for hours and are soaked to the skin with rain and sweat.
At least I have my boots. God bless Frieda.
The mud comes up to our ankles. We walk through a forest: dense trees drip large, heavy raindrops. ...

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17. A Very Long Hour

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pp. 126-130

The new prisoner of war camp is located in Homel.1 A huge barrack—containing about 3,000 prisoners of war—full of “beds”: in reality, three rows of plank pallets, one above the other, built along the length of the walls. ...

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18. A Brilliant Invention

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pp. 131-134

A restless night. Who can sleep when the man next to you is tossing sleeplessly from side to side, scratching himself? This scratching seems infectious, even without lice. It’s enough for someone to even talk about it, for the hearer to want to scratch—especially if the speaker is already scratching himself. Thousands of men lie scratching themselves all night. ...

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19. A Tale of Tolstoy

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pp. 135-140

The local Jewish family, who gave Margolis the benzene and oil last evening, received us warmly. They had no idea what the purpose of the benzene was. The oil must have been used for cooking, but why on earth had he requested benzene?
Against Margolis’s strong protestations to remain silent, I explained to them why and how we used the oil and benzene. ...

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20. Angry Growl, Peaceful Snore

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pp. 141-145

That night Margolis said, “Tomorrow morning, we leave here.”
“We leave no matter what,” Pály completed the statement.
“How? Who said we can?”
“Nobody. Just remove your officer’s insignia—and off we go.” ...

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21. To the Lair of the Bear

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pp. 146-150

We’ve been travelling for six days, and the sentry says that Moscow is quite near. But how can one depend on a Russian’s concept of distance and time? Someone who says that from Homel we’re “just” going to Moscow? The sentry says “today,” and indicates two hours with his fingers.
The trip has taken six days, and it hasn’t been a normal journey. ...

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22. Under the Care of the Swedish Red Cross

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pp. 151-164

The sentries escort me to the commandant’s office. He asks me a few dumb questions, then orders that my pockets and rucksack be searched. I ask him to believe me. I’ll give him everything I possess on my own, without being forced:
“On your honor?”
“On my honor.” ..

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23. The Death Train

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pp. 165-172

I wake up. Where am I? Oh! Now I remember. In the teplushka. I feel two people sleeping on my left and right, but am afraid to see who they are. Perhaps they’re not my friends? If not, I don’t want to know—I close my eyes again. My heart is beating like a sledgehammer with fear. Lord God, what will happen if they haven’t returned? ..

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24. Hell on Earth

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pp. 173-185

The prisoner of war barrack in Shatsk is located outside the town. A large barrack, sandwiched between a brick factory and a broken-down windmill. The guards are all Circassian.1 This is bad news: their reputation is fearsome. They walk around armed, whips in hand. The barrack stands naked and exposed in the middle of the field. There’s no yard, ...

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25. There Is No God but God

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pp. 186-195

Everyone but us goes to fetch food. How can we? Our utensils have been thrown away.
It’s evening again, and the cold is even worse than yesterday: a sharp, biting cold with severe frost. It’s freezing cold in the barrack, and our damp breathing, instead of warming, cools and increases the cold even more. We’ve no heating at all. ...

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26. From the Jaws of Death

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pp. 196-202

The night passes quietly—we hear and see nothing. It seems that one can get used to almost anything in this world. The satanic harmony around us now seems the most normal thing in the world: it doesn’t affect us anymore.
Who said that spiritual afflictions are stronger and more difficult to bear than physical afflictions? ...

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27. David’s Cave

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pp. 203-209

Morning dawns.
I’m sure that bad things are going to happen to us today. What if they ask us? What can we say?
Margolis thinks we should inform the commandant that one of us isn’t here. The gypsy advises against it: we should wait and see if the Russian guard feels that anything is amiss. If not, we must say nothing. ...

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28. Prayer for the Road

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pp. 210-218

At breakfast time, I ask one of the prisoners who looks a bit like Margolis to join us and fill the gap, so that the authorities won’t notice Margolis’s absence. He agrees.
They bring new guests in. The poor wretches. But what’s happening? They aren’t being beaten? ...

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Part 2

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pp. 219-220

In its original form, Hell on Earth comprised six volumes, which have been shortened to two. A great deal of material has been deleted from this second part, such as descriptions of the scenery during our travels—including the Northeastern Siberian Tundra and the Northern Lights ...

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29. Sodom

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pp. 221-224

During the long night, we struggle slowly through the mushy snow on a road that isn’t really a road. We are all alone—not a living soul from village or hamlet. We search in vain for a glimmer of light in the dim and distant horizon.
Only once do we see, at a distance of about two hundred paces, some type of animal scurry past. Maybe it’s a hare, a dog, or something else. ...

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30. The Menagerie of Souls

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pp. 225-232

Don’t weary yourself, my friend, trying to balance the contradiction between free will and Divine Providence. You won’t succeed. All philosophers, including our sages, agree on the fact that this problem must be bypassed.1 God has shown us the way on earth: we live in a menagerie of souls. The lion, in his own cage, can do as he pleases. ...

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31. The Game

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pp. 233-236

The menagerie in the prisoner of war camp in Kazan is even quieter than the one in Nizhny Novgorod. The prisoners here walk around with a defeated air. We aren’t plagued by hunger anymore, but the food here is sometimes worse than hunger itself. Obviously, this is only a figure of speech, because nothing is worse than hunger. ...

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32. A Jewish Tragedy

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pp. 237-242

About fifty of us have been sent away from Kazan, no reasons given. We’ve been on the road for six days so far. On the way we have enough to eat, and the food is fit for human consumption. The trains stop for long periods at each small station. Why? Where are they taking us? No one knows. The only thing we know is what the sentry has told us: ...

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33. Potiphar’s Wife

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pp. 243-252

Perm appears to be a large town. Its railway station is filled with different sorts of cargo; the railway line goes all the way to Siberia. The (female) sentry keeps watch on us as if we were—even from so far away—a real and present danger to the monarchy. ...

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34. The Human Slaughterhouse

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pp. 253-260

We’ve been transferred again. Why? We’ve no idea. The latest train journey is two weeks so far. Will it ever end? We travel and travel and travel, through mountains, valleys, rivers, and streams. They say that these are the mighty Urals. The sentries don’t want to tell us the names of the places we’re passing: they act as if this were a deep, dark secret. ...

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35. The War of the Gamecocks

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pp. 261-268

By a command that nobody understands, they are moving a hundred of us yet again. Where are we going? None of us asks. What would be the use? It makes no difference anyway. I’ve no idea where we are now. Even if I had a little geographic knowledge of this immense country, I wouldn’t have known that cities like this could exist in this world. ...

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36. Solitude

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pp. 269-276

We’ve been sent away again. Will this ever end?
I’m very tired.
I’ve lost all interest, all desire for, and opposition to, everything. Everything is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. It’s as if I’m looking at life from the outside. I travel, and don’t want to know where. ...

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37. Pály Is Murdered

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pp. 277-282

We arrive at the Tomsk railway station.
How long did it take us to travel from Omsk to Tomsk? I slept through the journey, getting up only for a few minutes to eat—and then fell asleep again. There is wood for heating, and it’s become a little less cold. A soft snow is falling. ...

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38. The Arithmetic of Stupidity

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pp. 283-288

I feel as if I’m losing my mind. In the beginning I longed for Pály terribly and missed him every minute of the day. I now feel, without exaggeration, that there’s no place for me without Pály in this desolation. I have been calmly planning to die for the past few days: right here, alongside him. In the beginning I felt as if the boy belonged to me like my son, ...

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39. Returned to Life

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pp. 289-294

These calculations haven’t had the desired effect. Instead of darkening, my mind is becoming brighter and clearer. I’m starting to open my eyes, see, and remember things that must have been subconsciously etched in my mind, which I’m only noticing now. First and foremost, I’m beginning to really see Siberia. Yes, I really am in Siberia, ...

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40. The Snow Mummies

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pp. 295-301

Immediately on arrival at the camp in Yakutsk, they make us form up. We’re ordered to walk on, but where? As usual, none of us know. We’re about two hundred men, escorted by about forty sentries, including two Circassian riders. When I see them, my gorge rises. ...

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41. Carnival of Lust and Hate

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pp. 302-309

On the road again. After another journey of about a week, we’re now in the Irkutsk prisoner of war camp. On the way we pass by Udinsk, and I’m gripped by a powerful desire to get off the train and run to Pály’s grave. I’ve a small memento from him: an aluminium ring made out of the splinter of Russian shrapnel that wounded me near my heart last year ...

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42. A Daughter of Israel

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pp. 310-328

Life here is becoming more irksome with every passing day. The number of sick men ignored by everyone—especially those suffering from typhus—chokes me up. I have no idea why the Russian authorities aren’t scared of contracting typhus themselves. Surely Russian sentries also get infected, and how can command be sure ...

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43. The Mad Costume Party

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pp. 329-335

It takes us a whole week of wandering, tossed to and fro on this awful road, to arrive in Sayansk.
At the town entrance, we find the workshop of a Russian blacksmith. His assistant is an Austrian prisoner of war from Graz, who greets us fearfully, but allows us into his little room. Initially, ...

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44. The Death of Margolis

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pp. 336-347

In some camps, the authorities treat prisoners of war with politeness, even respect. This is especially so with enemy officers. By doing this, they want to show that they know the meaning of courtesy, and not all of them are chmo. When new officers enter the camp, they’re received by the commandant, sometimes even a Russian general, on parade. ...

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45. Symposium

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pp. 348-362

I ask the guard how far it is to Sarov. “Only about four hundred verst.”
The scenery is beautiful: we pass through mountains and rivers.
We arrive in a broad plain.
The stations are neat and tidy. ...

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46. The Holy Sister

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pp. 363-368

That evening they let us out. Why? We haven’t a clue.
How bright the night is! It looks like day.
There are about 250 officers in the camp.
We ask them, “What’s happened with the revolution?” ...

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47. All Alone

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pp. 369-371

We wait and hope in vain for the revolution to improve things. This camp isn’t as bad as the one in Uralsk, and there is less overcrowding, but many are sick.
Signs of the holy sister’s gift gradually appear and increase with time. Despair and fury drive the men crazy. ...

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48. Confusion

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pp. 372-378

The doctor yells at me, pushing me away angrily.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he cries. “Can’t you even look after yourself? Don’t you care that you were lying with a typhus corpse!”
Despite all, the revolution has really arrived. An order comes to care for the sick and clean out the prisoner of war camps. ...

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49. The Seder

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pp. 379-393

“Where are we going now?”
“To Shatsk.”
My eyes pop out.
“To Shatsk?” I ask in horror.
The guard is surprised at how terrified I am.
“Why are you so afraid?” ...

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50. Desolation

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pp. 394-409

I’m back in Darnitsa.
The camp is more organized than it was a year ago. But Czech rule is still merciless.
They can’t understand why I’ve suddenly been sent here: all on my own, from so far away. ...

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51. The Messiah’s Horn

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pp. 410-414

I am writing these lines from my own private apartment in Kiev, 19 Tarasovskaya.
Before I obtained the privilege of my own private dwelling—finally fit for a human to live in—fate still had one more crude trick up its sleeve before my long nightmare ended, and I was returned to life. ...

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52. Petliura

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pp. 415-422

When I wake up, it’s evening again.
Thousands of festive stars, lit by the hand of the Living God, sparkle in the spring sky.
The air is filled with all kinds of intoxicating odors.
This is the richest, most satisfying spring of my life. ...

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53. Too Many Words

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pp. 423-427

My friend Menachem Ribolov appears again, giving me a thousand rubles from Shoshannah Persitz.1
I ask who she is.
“I can’t tell you; you’ll know when you meet her.”
I ask, “Is she beautiful?” ...

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54. Finis Comediae

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pp. 428-436

In Moscow, the revolution has passed into the hands of two men who see no virtue in moderation.1 Kerensky has fled the country. Who are these two men? I once saw one of them, Trotsky, in Vienna before the war, speaking to a group of newspaper reporters, amongst whom was Karl Kraus, ...

Notes

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pp. 437-460